Sewage scandal: Ofwat opens investigation into sixth water company

Ofwat has opened an enforcement case against South West Water over its treatment of sewage, meaning more than half of England and Wales’ water and wastewater companies are now under investigation by the regulator.

Sewage pollution. Image: Pixabay

South West Water has joined Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Thames Water, Wessex Water, and Yorkshire Water in the group of companies being investigated due to “ongoing concerns” into how they are managing their wastewater treatment works. 

There are 11 regional water and wastewater companies in England and Wales, which means more than half are now under investigation. 

Ofwat is responsible for the economic regulation of the privatised water and sewerage industry. It opened five initial enforcement cases in March 2022, and has said these are continuing alongside that opened today into South West Water, due to outstanding concerns arising from the information provided by the companies so far. 

The regulator has said that the “quality and completeness” of the information provided about how the firms’ wastewater treatment works are performing was of particular concern, as well as the information submitted about what they do to ensure their works do not cause environmental harm. 

David Black, Ofwat chief executive, said: “As we gather and analyse more information, including data on storm overflow spills, our concerns have grown further about South West Water's operation of its wastewater assets and environmental performance. As a result, we have opened an additional enforcement case into South West Water.

"We have now opened enforcement cases against the majority of wastewater companies in England and Wales. From what we have seen so far, the scale of the issue here is shocking – companies must resolve any problems at wastewater treatment works and do so quickly. Where they have breached their obligations, we will not hesitate to act."

Ofwat’s announcement comes on the same day that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) revealed that it is opening its own investigation into the regulation of combined sewage overflows (CSOs), including Ofwat itself.  

The OEP’s investigation will include an examination of how the monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ duties to manage sewage are regulated.

Green groups and campaigners have largely welcomed the expansion of Ofwat’s investigation, however many have commented that it has been long coming.

“Makes you wonder what the regulator has been doing all these years,” river campaigner Feargal Sharkey said on Twitter.

Charles Watson, founder and chair of River Action UK told ENDS that while he was pleased that Ofwat was widening its investigation, "it is long overdue".

"Water companies have long treated the UK’s rivers as a dumping ground, and it is vital they are held to account," he said. "Our rivers are in a state of crisis, and it is paramount urgent action is taken to protect them.”

Mike Keil, the Consumer Council for Water’s senior director of policy, research and campaigns, commented that it is a “betrayal of customers’ trust and expectations if a sewerage company fails to comply with its basic duties and puts at risk the health of rivers and habitats for wildlife.” 

A South West Water spokesperson said that the company had noted Ofwat’s announcement, and that it was taking the decision “very seriously”. 

“We will provide any further information required as part of its review into South West Water. It is important that Ofwat and the public can have ongoing confidence in our commitment to the environment. Earlier this year we conducted a line by line review of our plans and announced our largest environmental programme in 15 years.”

They said this programme would reduce the company’s use of storm overflows, maintain the region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round, and reduce and then remove its impact on river water quality by 2030. 

“We will continue to work openly and transparently with Ofwat as part of their industry wide activity,” the spokesperson said.